The highlight of the 2022 NBA All-Star Weekend two weeks ago was the celebration of the all-time best players throughout the 75 years of the league. The NBA named and honored the players, but they weren’t ranked in any particular order. There were 11 from California high schools who were presented. Here’s our ranking of those 11 plus the one player we’d rank as the highest who should have been on. We also have a list of the next 18 who’d be among our best who should have been closest to being in the top 75.
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This is a list derived from one that was published by BallisLife.com. To check out the full list of all NBA Top 75 players (not just those from California), CLICK HERE.
We just give a high-line reason why each player slots into the position he does, but also factor in ABA success. After all, ABA stats and honors count, unlike the USFL for football. We also give a rundown of what the player was like in high school. Two things really stand out in ranking these all-time NBA greats. Many of them won’t be around when the NBA has its 100th anniversary celebration and quite a few were not high school basketball All-Americans. In fact, some were bench-warmers or didn’t even play. It just goes to show how remarkably different people’s paths are to greatness and immortality.
1) Bill Russell, McClymonds (Oakland) 6-9 C ’52
Russell had a knack for timing, whether it showing up in Boston as a perfect piece to a budding dynasty, or retiring on top with his 11th championship. In between, Russell revolutionized defensive basketball and the NBA fast break. Individually, he won five NBA MVPs and his impact can’t be measured in stats alone.
HS Status: Played with talented athletes in high school and backed up future MLB HOFer Frank Robinson at Mack. A lot of credit goes to USF coaches who saw the potential and how to utilize his budding quickness and instincts around the basket.
2) Jason Kidd, St. Joseph (Alameda) 6-4 G ’92
No guard has been in the same breath as Magic since he came onto the scene 40 years ago, but from the standpoint of pushing the rock and setting up others, Kidd comes in closest. He also was a hellacious defender and all-NBA first team five times.
HS Status: Known for his strength and stamina from the lead guard position, he was four-time all-NorCal, three-time all-state and still is generally considered NorCal’s best prep ever.
3) James Harden, Artesia (Lakewood) 6-5 G ’07
Unless you’ve seen him up close or studied his numbers, you don’t realize how talented he really is at the offensive end. Despite being so polarizing, he’s accomplished things only the game’s very best have.
HS Status: A two-time divisional state player of the year, Harden averaged 19 ppg on California’s best team and was significantly younger than many of his peers in a great class.
4) Kawhi Leonard, Martin Luther King (Riverside) 6-7 F ’09
The only player to earn NBA Finals MVP with a team from each conference in a full season, Leonard is dominant on both sides of the ball. In the era of stars switching teams, should Leonard one day lead a third franchise to a NBA title, he’ll continue to climb rapidly on many all-time lists.
HS Status: A somewhat late bloomer who was a part-time starter as a sophomore at Canyon Springs of nearby Moreno Valley, ‘Whi was definitely looked at as a big-time prospect and impact Pac-12 recruit. However, those programs got on board much too late and our 2009 Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year stayed loyal to SDSU’s recruiting efforts.
5) Russell Westbrook,
Leuzinger (Lawndale) 6-4 G ’06
One of the most explosive guards of all-time, he is also one of the most polarizing NBA MVPs of all-time.
HS Status: He was literally one of the final selections on the Cal-Hi Sports All-State team for 2006, after averaging 25.1 ppg. A growth spurt helped his game on the boards (8.7 rpg) while he honed his perimeter skill.
6) Paul Pierce, Inglewood 6-7 F ’95
There is no denying what he did in the big moments, outplaying Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in key playoff series, and his career marks.
HS Status: Started off his career slow, but took off in his junior year and was considered the best player on the West Coast as a senior. One of the very best in a terrific class.
7) Gary Payton, Skyline (Oakland) 6-4 G ’86
The Glove is one of the best practical and reputation defenders ever, earning first team all-defense nine consecutive seasons. Payton was also durable, underrated offensively and a noted clubhouse presence for teams looking to get over the hump.
HS Status: A third five all-state selection as a senior, the first team all-East Bay choice led Skyline to back-to-back OAL titles alongside future NBA player Greg Foster. As a a senior, he averaged 20.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 10.5 apg.
8) Bill Walton, Helix (La Mesa) 6-11 C ’70
At his peak, Walton was one of the very best players in the league. Defeating the ’77 76ers in the finals is one of the best individual accomplishments for a ALPHA leading a non-dynasty club. Outplayed Kareem in the conference finals the same season and had the Blazers rolling the next season until injury changed the projection of his career. If peak performance is a criteria of focus, the Big Red Head more than deserves his spot on this list.
HS Status: After a nondescript junior season, Walton wasn’t considered the front-runner for state player of the year even though he was a good college prospect. That all changed when Helix ventured to the San Dimas Tournament of Champions. After his performances, scouts and college coaches knew Walton was probably a better prospect than SI cover boy and three time All-American Tom McMillen.
9) Bill Sharman, Porterville 6-1 G ’44
Four-time champ with the Celtics and a great shooter, Sharman’s inclusion on the top 75 also could have been helped by what he did as a head coach. It does beg the question if he is on so should the No. 2 or No. 3 options from more recent great dynasties.
HS Status: Sherman was an accomplished athlete during WW2. He’s still generally considered one of the greatest high school athletes ever from the CIF Central Section.
10) Reggie Miller, Poly (Riverside) 6-6 G ’83
Pacers’ all-time great never made higher than third team All-NBA. His longevity makes him better than guys like Klay Thompson, Vince Carter, Sidney Moncrief or Marques Johnson, guys who were better at their peak but either haven’t played as long or didn’t last as long.
HS Status: He was a first five choice as a senior, but Miller and the other seniors in California were overshadowed by a terrific crop of juniors.
11) Damian Lillard, Oakland 6-2 G ’08
A clutch shooter, Lillard will move up on this list one day, but he still has many years in his career to go and may be more suited for the 100th anniversary team.
HS Status: He averaged 22.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 2.3 apg as a senior, but just never got to play in the big showcase game or tournament to show he was on par with California’s very best players. Still, gained one of our final spots on all-state elite teams. Not many Weber State recruits get that, but there was something special there.
BEST FROM STATE WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN TOP 75
Dennis Johnson, Dominguez (Compton) 6-3 G ’72
Perhaps D.J. was snubbed from the 75th team because three members of the 1980s Celtics already are on, but he can’t be judged just by what he did in Boston. A trusted, clutch performer and one of the best defensive guards ever, Johnson should have gotten credit for being a first team all-NBA performer in ’81 and second team in ’80. On top of that, he was the ’79 NBA Finals MVP for the Sonics.
HS Status: The late DJ hardly ever played at Dominguez, toiling deep on the Dons’ bench. Jim White, the coach at L.A. Harbor College, saw him play and encouraged him to enroll. In three years, he developed into a second round draft choice.
NEXT 18 FROM STATE WHO WE THINK SHOULD BE CONSIDERED
CLOSEST TO MAKING A FUTURE NBA ANNIVERSARY TEAM
Gilbert Arenas, Grant (Van Nuys) 6-4 G ’98
Phil Chenier, Berkeley 6-3 G ’68
DeMar DeRozan, Compton 6-6 F ’07
Paul George, Knight (Palmdale) 6-8 F ’07
Gail Goodrich, Poly (Los Angeles) 6-0 G ’61
Marques Johnson, Crenshaw (Los Angeles) 6-5 F ’73
Kevin Johnson, Sacramento 6-1 G ’83
K.C. Jones, Commerce (San Francisco) 6-2 G ’51
Bill Laimbeer, Palos Verdes (PV Estates) 6-11 C ’75
Tom Meschery, Lowell (San Francisco) 6-5 F ’57
Willie Naulls, San Pedro 6-5 F ’52
Jim Pollard, Oakland Tech (Oakland) 6-4 F ’39
Paul Silas, McClymonds (Oakland) 6-6 F ’60
Klay Thompson, Santa Margarita (Rancho SM) 6-5 G ’08
Paul Westphal, Aviation (Redondo Beach) 6-3 G ’68
Sidney Wicks, Hamilton (Los Angeles) 6-8 C ’67
Jamaal Wilkes, Santa Barbara 6-6 F ’70
George Yardley, Newport Harbor (Newport Beach) 6-5 F ’46
Ronnie Flores is the national Grassroots editor of Ballislife.com and is managing editor of CalHiSports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonMFlores